I was thinking about my dad this last Father’s Day. It is always a bittersweet day, because he’s not here to share it with me–he passed away in 1993–but I know that I got my love of building things from him. He wasn’t a builder by profession, instead a physicist; but he had a love of building things that found outlets everywhere else in his life. He was often to be found in his shop creating some unique and interesting thing, from metalworking to fiberglass and epoxy to woodwork to machining–or to a vintage “gangster” car with the full round seats in the back, that he restored to better than new. We called it “The Grey Ghost”. I remember him pointing out to me how he’d hollowed out the dashboard where the letter “O” from “Overdrive” was imprinted, and how you couldn’t tell unless it was lit, but it now housed the oil pressure light. He upgraded the mechanics to the modern day but, by golly, he didn’t change the look of that old vintage sedan.
I was about twelve when he helped me build a lightweight balsawood helicopter. He told me a secret: build the thing as light and flimsy as possible, and don’t worry about strength. Then test it out–fly it. Whatever breaks first, repair it. Then fly it again. Repair what breaks from that; then keep testing and repairing, testing and repairing, until nothing else breaks. That was his way of evolving the best design. It strikes me that it has a lot in common with nature’s own methods.
Over the years he hand-built several houses, and I don’t think it ever occurred to him to live in a house that he hadn’t built himself. I inherited that from him too, and wound up doing the same..
He built lightweight balsa wood gliders most of his life, and flew them wherever he could find a place, country meadows or fields, the seaside, or athletic fields.
I went with him once, watched him hammer a stake into the ground, attach a long thin rubber band to it and clip the glider to the other end, then walk backward the whole length a local football field carrying his delicate balsa wood plane above his head. Then in one deft movement, he launched it: it whoozed its way towards the stake –which I thought it would surely hit–and jipped in a dizzying curve up, straight up like a rocket. He guided it by radio-control, and levelled it off, flew it around in patterns for five or ten minutes. It was beautiful to behold, this frail bird swooping and turning and diving through the crisp cobalt sky. But then a freak gust of wind caught the craft and flung it to the ground. From across the field we heard the heartbreaking crack of the balsa wood wing snapping in two. My heart was in my throat. Surely he would be crushed. Discouraged. Defeated.
But no! My dad simply walked over, picked up the frumpled plane, and said, “Oh, great! Now we get to repair it!” He wasn’t being sarcastic. He seemed as excited about that prospect of fixing the horribly mangled mess as he had been about flying it.
And so that’s what we did for the rest of the afternoon.
I still have some of the tools that he used in my own shop, and they are a comforting presence. I probably haven’t yet seen or felt all the ways that he’s influenced my work, the way I live, the way I view the world. But it’s nice to have that to look forward to.